The days are shorter and colder, and as winter drags along, cabin fever begins to take hold. The winter blues can be draining—even moreso if you suffer from seasonal affective disorder—but we found some expert advice that can help.
Being stuck inside due to weather, or even just dealing with shorter, colder days that might keep you indoors more can mess with routines and moods. Seasonal affective disorder occurs when a deeper depression takes hold with a change in the seasons, and is often attributed to changes in hormone and neurotransmitter levels. Find out how you can help keep your mind and body in check.
Just because you can’t get out of the house, doesn’t mean you should change your routine. Lauren R. Disner, a licensed professional counselor, shared some advice in a blog post, and says that starting your day with a normal routine is half the battle.
“Staying in your pajamas for a full day may be great the first snow day, but after a while, you may start to feel depressed if you don't take care of your body and physical appearance,” Disner writes. “Take a shower, get dressed in clothes you like, fix your hair, make your bed—do everything you would normally do and you will feel like you've accomplished something, even if this is all you get done.”
Technology today is often intrusive to our home lives, allowing us to bring our work home. But when you’re stuck inside due to weather, it can also be a blessing. If you are stranded at home due to weather, get some work done, Disner suggests, or even do some shopping or reach out to friends. Cabin fever also presents an opportunity to tackle some projects you may have put off, such as organizing closets or doing some deep cleaning. If all else fails, bundle up and get outside for some activity to burn off some energy, she suggests.
Don’t just stop at brief sojourn outside, either. According to the Community Reach Center, a Colorado mental health services center, regular exercise—even just a brisk walk a few times each week—can help relieve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Exercise releases endorphins, a chemical in the brain that creates positive feelings. Taking your exercise outside, if possible, can help, too. Being outside and exposed to sunlight can help by increasing levels of vitamin D3, which boosts both dopamine and serotonin—“feel-good” chemicals in the brain. The lack on sunlight in the winter can cause serotonin levels to drop, causing depression, as well as off-setting circadian rhythms.
Reset your clock
Speaking of circadian rhythms, a change in daylight hours can have a significant effect on your health and mood. Less daylight and sunshine can disrupt melatonin levels, which help regulate both mood and sleep patterns. While fresh air and keeping a good routine for sleep hygiene may help, in more severe cases of seasonal affective disorder, tricking your brain may be necessary. Light therapy can be as effective as medications in managing seasonal depression, according to a Harvard University report. Light boxes are one method, and use artificial light to mimic the sun for around 30 minutes each day. Another option is a dawn simulator, which gradually increases the light in your bedroom to mimic the sun, making it easier to start your day in darker winter months.
Eat your way to a better mood
Diet is just as important to your mind as your body, and certain foods can make you feel better—or worse. Lean proteins are a good choice because they contain a lot of amino acids and moega-3 fatty acids that can affect mood, and can provide energy. Berries are a good choice, too, because they prevent the release of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. Folic acid is also helpful, as it’s believed to play a role in creating serotonin, and can be found in leafy greens, oranges, and certain beans and seeds. Vitamin B-12, found in dairy products, some seafoods, lean beef, eggs, and fortified cereals, is also believed to help stave off depression. Mood-boosting vitamin D can also be found in some foods like milk, eggs, mushrooms and some fish, as well as in supplements. A little chocolate can’t hurt either, but it has to be dark chocolate with high cocoa content, which has been found to have polyphenols, an antioxidant. Turkey is another “happy food,” full of tryptophan and melatonin. Bananas are also a good source of tryptophan, along with carbohydrates for energy, magnesium to improve sleep and reduce anxiety, and potassium and natural sugars to fuel the brain. Processed sugar is best avoided, though, because it can cause a “crash” that can make a bad mood worse.
Pleasant distractions can also help fight the winter blues, including playing a game with family and friends, or putting on some upbeat music. Planning a vacation can also be a good move, even if you can’t go anywhere yet. Studies have shown that the simple act of planning a vacation can improve moods and boost happiness.
Change your thinking
Changing the way you think can also help overcome depression. Health psychologist Ann Webster, PhD, says cognitive behavioral therapy is a great tool to use. She tells clients to begin by writing the things that upset them across the top of a form, detailing the negative thoughts, and emotional and physical symptoms that come with those thoughts. She then instructs them to list some alternate ways they can think or feel based on rational ways of thinking, and detailing how those thoughts or feelings impacted them.
“When you have positive thoughts, then you write down how you feel,” Webster says.
Relaxation and meditation can help achieve these positive thoughts, and seeing the results of one’s efforts in their own writing can help make progress more real.